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Neighbourhoods and communities
Deep poverty and destitution

Our welfare state should prevent problems, not just solve them

The challenge of a new government will be to shift the culture of public services with a unifying narrative around community, respect and solidarity.

Written by:
Polly Curtis
Date published:
Reading time:
5 minutes

The state is stuck in fire-fighting mode, the scale of ill-health, destitution and need grimly increasing, while our cash-starved public services are forced to raise the thresholds for interventions, leaving more and more unmet need. One desperate example: over 15 years, support services for families have been whittled away. The result? More and more children are taken into a creaking care system when it’s too late to do anything else to help their families. There is a profound and generational human cost, not to mention a final bill that far outstrips the cost of the early help services that were lost. 

It is almost cruel to pour more money into a system that is servicing misery, rather than building a different state that prevents these circumstances from arising at all.

Reforming services and building social connection

A new government must find ways to flip this model, to prevent problems before they arise. Keir Starmer is promising “prevention first, right across society”. But how? At Demos we have been making the case for a preventative state, that realises the value of spending on services differently so that it invests, for example, in family services early, to prevent the later costs of children going into care. 

This isn’t easy, but it’s not especially radical, or at least, it shouldn’t be. Such ‘supply-side’ prevention is simply about reforming services to prevent problems, obesity, smoking, worklessness, homelessness, from arising in the first place, so as to protect people from all the grim consequences they bring. Each intervention needs trialling and evidencing both to target investment on what really works, and to convince the Treasury that it ultimately makes sense to budget on slow, preventative timelines. We have recommended a new ring-fenced prevention budget to drive the cultural shift that’s needed. 

But there is another layer to prevention that could be far more radical, and go further: ‘demand-side’ prevention that builds stronger community networks, or ‘social capital’, to offer a preventative measure against ill-health and destitution and thereby reduce the demand on services. Social isolation drives ill-health, family breakdown, worklessness, and contributes to destitution. Of course it’s not the only factor, but it is an aggravating factor, because it leaves people with nowhere to turn. 

The solution doesn’t lie in Whitehall or a mayor’s office, there’s a limit to what even town halls can do. It lies in our neighbourhoods, in the fabric of our communities, in the relationships between people who pass in the street, at the school gates, and in the local social infrastructure that provides the space where bonds and ties can develop. 

Prevention from the bottom up

We need to build a preventative state from the bottom up, that empowers communities to come together by investing in both community centres and halls and the web of clubs and associations that bring people together. Demos is working on the concept of Universal Social Infrastructure, national standards for local social and civic infrastructure, with funding focusing on plugging the gaps across the country. This is not just about places for people to meet, but also the capacity to build communities in the form of training for local leaders. 

It is also about power. We need to create new ways for communities to take charge of decisions about how investment in their neighbourhoods can work. We need to devolve decision-making down beyond town halls, sometimes passing it right down to individual neighbourhoods, creating partnerships between citizens, local employers, service authorities and other organisations. By sharing power differently, we can give communities new agency over their own future, and new ways to come together for the common good. 

These are not just policy questions. These are changes in the way the state thinks about its role: from provider to partner, from solution to platform for people to devise their own solutions. There are councils around the country already thinking in this way, most famously in Wigan. The Wigan Deal represented a new settlement with citizens, and has led to tangible health benefits. There are parallels in initiatives with Barking and Dagenham, and Camden, in London. These are councils that see their communities as people to work with and for, rather than to and at. It’s about seeing the role of the state as being not just to provide services, but also to enable. Achieving this new way of working is mostly a question not of narrow policy changes, but of the right culture and approach.

A unifying narrative and common mission

The American political scientist Robert Putnam has documented the long-term trends in social connectedness in the US, and to a certain extent the UK too. He documents a shift from ‘I’, individualistic, unconnected and unequal, societies at the end of the 19th century and the rise of the ‘we’ society by the mid-20th century and the fact that we have drifted back to the atomised ‘I’ mode of living today. But most of his book, The Upswing, is focused on what preceded the original shift to the communitarian, connected moment. He concludes that it was moral awakening, at that time led by religious leaders, advocating for a better way of society functioning and caring for one another. We need a communitarian awakening today. 

There was a moment in the pandemic where people recognised what they had lost in lockdown, turned to their neighbours, engaged in mutual aid, clapped for the NHS on their doorstep, revelling in the sound of their neighbourhood’s joint endeavour. Yet we did not build on that moment, and social isolation has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. But we still could find that moral awakening, not necessarily led by religious organisations, but in our collective national story. 

We need more than policy to build social capital, we need a unifying narrative around community, respect and solidarity that gives us a common mission to come together as a country, to support our neighbours, and to connect again. That is a new government’s challenge. Get it right, and it will not just be a cure for, but, even better, a powerful inoculation against, so many of Britain’s ills.

About the author

Polly is Chief Executive of Demos. She is also a Non Executive Director of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and a Trustee at the Public Interest News Foundation.

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